MILTON-FREEWATER — After an hour of questions and deliberations, the Milton-Freewater City Council passed a resolution Monday night to greenlight adding the reformation of its ambulance service district to the November ballot.
But in the end, the councilors, the public, and even the current ambulance service district board left with more questions than answers.
“All clear as mud, right?” said Milton-Freewater Ambulance Service Area Health District President Dan Kilmer as the ambulance board ended its presentation.
The vote was unanimous except for councilor Brad Humbert, who abstained from voting, though many said they were uncomfortable with the questions surrounding the resolution. Councilor Vern Pressnall said he “wasn’t impressed” with the proposed budget but that he wanted voters to have a say, while councilor Steve Irving said his constituents will have problems with the proposed rate but that they also deserved a say in that.
“I’ve had at least three sleepless nights trying to decide if I was going to vote yes or not,” councilor Ed Chestnutt said.
The resolution comes after the ambulance district board worked with the Umatilla County commissioners over the past month and a half to search for a solution to its funding dilemma.
Currently, the district contracts ambulance service through the Milton-Freewater Emergency Medical Service, which is privately owned by Rick Saager. While the district receives funds from property taxes, the board and Saager have said the current permanent tax rate of 25 cents per $1,000 assessed property value isn’t covering its costs.
The councilors’ approval clears another hurdle for putting the decision in the voters’ hands. On Friday, the ambulance board will hold another public meeting with the county commissioners, where they can finalize the proposal for the ballot.
Voters would need to approve dissolving the district, then reforming a district within the same boundaries — which is the same area covered by the Milton-Freewater Unified School District — and then approving the new permanent tax rate of $1.40 per $1,000. If any of the three measures don’t pass, the district would revert to its current boundaries and tax rate.
“Everybody agrees on the need for one established district that provides emergency medical service,” Mayor Lewis Key said.
To make their pitch, Janice Holden, another elected member of the ambulance board, opened her presentation with personal stories on the importance of emergency medical services. To justify the tax hike, Holden highlighted the need to update and maintain equipment and to recruit and retain emergency personnel.
Kilmer and Holden svpoke during the open public section of the city council meeting in July and at the time one of the council’s primary concerns was the risk of tax compression by raising the ambulance district’s rate.
In a report distributed by the ambulance board that references Umatilla County Tax Assessor Paul Chalmers as its source, “it would not have a huge effect on the other taxing districts — yet.”
The report says the higher tax rate “would only impact the city’s general fund by $33 per year, and our two local option tax levies by $43 (transportation) and $45 (parks and recreation.)”
Holden said that Chalmers has helped the ambulance board develop a calculator to assess how the tax rate would impact individuals and if the measures were to be placed on the ballot she said that calculator would be made publicly available.
But it wasn’t the value of ambulances or risk of compression that raised questions.
Following the presentation, Humbert asked the board why they opted to pursue a completely new district with a new tax rate rather than going after an operating levy. While those levies can grant funds for five to 10 years, Holden responded that the board’s current proposal would make the EMS sustainable for at least 20 years.
Humbert then questioned Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer about what will happen to the ambulance board if the district was dissolved and reformed. As Humbert saw it, there would either need to be an immediate special election to refill those seats or the commissioners would need to reappoint its current members.
George White, treasurer for the ambulance board, said as far as he knows the November ballot would include an election for the board that would be open for others to campaign for. Shafer said he would have that question answered by Friday’s public meeting.
Councilor Ed Chestnutt’s main concern revolved around what he described as “the muddying of the line” between the ambulance district board and the service provider. Throughout the presentation and questioning period, Kilmer and Holden repeatedly deferred to Saager in the audience to answer.
Chestnutt also questioned what the new contract would be with Saager or another provider.
“I know you can’t answer that because you haven’t started negotiations yet,” he said. “But that’s something that many will have questions about.”
City Manager Linda Hall also was worried about the new proposed district that would result in the ambulance board purchasing and owning the ambulances and equipment. Right now, Saager owns that aspect of the service. Chestnutt also voiced concern.
“I know I’m not, and I don’t know many other publicly elected officials who are qualified to own and care for three ambulances and all that equipment,” he said.